Stirling, Lubetkin and Singapore

There is always something nice about confounding expectations, and presumably, a few lucky punters cleaned up when Astley Castle, unexpectedly, won the Stirling Prize. It is, by all accounts, a superb project and in a sense relatively democratic, since anybody who wants to stay there can rent it – if, of course, they can afford it, which seems to be pretty much our government’s definition of democratic.

What Astley Castle does not have is an obvious social agenda. It was not a way for the judges to make, as they have been accused of doing before, a political point about the importance of public funding.Neither this nor Niall McLaughlin’s chapel, which was the bookies’ favourite, is in any sense a social project. Which is fine – this is a prize for architecture, not for social impact. Astley Castle does, however, address the romantic feelings that the British have about old, and particularly ruined, buildings, while doing so in an innovative manner.

Witherford Watson Mann, the architect for Astley Castle,  was on the shortlist for Stirling for the first time. A lot of its work is strongly about place – for example, it developed the idea of the Bankside Forest, a kind of virtual – but not entirely – forest around Tate Modern, the former Bankside power station. This sense of place-making is visible most strongly in Gardens by the Bay, the project by Wilkinson Eyre and Grant Associates that has won the Lubetkin Prize, the equivalent to Stirling for projects beyond Europe.One of the many extraordinary things about this project, which is actually the creation of a new piece of city land, is that, with the exception of the greenhouses themselves, it is free to visit.

Last year it won first prize at the World Architecture Festival set, appropriately enough, in Singapore. This year’s festival is in Singapore again, starting on Wednesday. I will be heading there, revisiting the wonderful Gardens by the Bay and, with luck, seeing a little more of a place that is fascinating, both loveable and loathable in equal measure, and doubtless with lessons for the UK, but ones that are very difficult to translate because of the difference in size, governance and climate.

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